At the end of his journey in Paradise, Dante reaches the outermost layer of the Celestial Firmament, the dwelling-place of God himself. The Empyrean.
There I saw Light like a river in its molten glow
That golden flowed between two banks a-flower
With spring’s fresh miracle.
From out the stream
Came leaping sparks that in the blossoms fed,
Rubies in cups of sunlight.
Fifteenth century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch also sees a light, possibly as the result of a near death experience and begins sketching two-winged figures travelling down a tunnel. Sniffing the charcoal on his fingertips, he names the painting “Ascent to Empyrean”.
Their faces were of lively flame:
alight their wings with lustrous gold:
the rest so white that dull in contrast
were the whitest snow.
Dante understood the Greek “empyrios” to mean “on fire”.
For Bosch, living in the Spanish Netherlands at the height of the Inquisition, the word had become Latinised as meaning the characteristic smell of burning flesh.
Bobby Hargis – Motorcycle patrolman, Dallas Police
“When Kennedy was shot in the head, brain matter and blood hit me and my helmet as I rode through.
Officer Bud Brewer says, ‘Bob, you got something on your lip there.’ And he flicked at it, and it was a piece of Kennedy’s brain and a piece of skull bone.”
“Well, I walked over to the sheriff’s office, and a guy came up
to me and offered me seventeen thousand dollars for my
It began in Minsk. At a dance for medical students at The Palace of Culture. She worked at a pharmacy. He operated a lathe at the radio factory.
As she took a shower, he stared at his handiwork on the bedside table. He still felt the same mix of pride and wonder that he felt the first time his creation left the assembly line. He clicked it into life…
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark
Staring at the tiny vibrations on the shade of the bedside lamp, he thought of the hours he’d spent learning to adjust the diameter of a tiny cylindrical piece of metal so it slid exactly into a tube. He then thought of a cracking a double entendre as she towelled off but she didn’t understand jokes. And she’d already proved twice that night that she didn’t understand radios either.
He was good. He was precise. He was fulfilled. Some days he felt his co-workers must be using sledgehammers compared to his detailed work.
He got angry one day when Boris, his supervisor, told him to stop worrying so much. He said the radio wasn’t his problem once it left the factory, so why sweat?
They called Boris “the comedian”. Boris was “a real shock” compared to his previous boss, Ivan.
Ivan told him that, just after the war, when Comrade Stalin was drinking less – work at the factory was very different. He showed him a faded yellow document he kept in his bottom draw that had been circulated by the bureau. “The empirical relationship between stimulus and performance”. Psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson had written it in 1908 but Ivan wasn’t bothered that they were Americans. They talked of how to increase the rapidity of habit-formation and Ivan liked anything that increased the rapidity of habit-formation. He read it twice before he left work that day.
The paper examines a rat’s ability to choose channels in a run following their exposure to an electric shock. They find that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, the performance of the rat decreased. Too low – the same. The rats shocked with medium intensity learn the task quickly and effectively.
They lay there, half-naked, half dead in the half-light. Wrapped only in a sheet and laid out on her grandmother’s bed – embalmed in themselves. He felt a pain, like a scalpel scoring scars along his temple. Then she fluttered her butterfly wings briefly, teasing his soul back to the earth. Fanning the flames of a thousand-year struggle that no doubt was still causing earthquakes in China. Her uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Ilya Prusakov had said “Take care of this girl. She has plenty of breezes in her head.”
Well, sir, he liked her breezes just fine.
The radio crackled again. Russian voices gave way to Nino Tempo & April Stevens.
When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls,
And the stars begin to flicker in the sky,
Through the mist of a memory,
You wander back to me
Breathing my name with a sigh.
They married in a registry office one month later and honeymoon for two days straight in their Minsk apartment.
A young KGB operative sits in a building across the street transcribing their conversation from a bug in the radio. The line crackles incessantly and the operative smacks the casing. “Shit technology” he mumbles before the sound of a smashing cup returns his pencil to the page.
He: You never do anything!
She: Have you ever cleaned up this apartment – just once? I’ve done it 21 times. You’ll do it and then talk about it all day.
He: …Marina, you sleep until 10 in the morning and you don’t do anything. You could be cleaning up during that time.
She: I need my sleep. If you don’t like it, you can go back to where you came from… You’re always finding fault; nothing’s enough, everything’s bad.
He: Well you’re ridiculous. Lazy and crude.
The operative snorted. The wife was an academic. A
pharmacist. Who was he to talk to her like that? He worked a
lathe. He made radios. He was an American.
March 12th, 1963
Dallas, Texas. She shouldn’t have made that threat.
As they unpack, he clicks on Dallas’s WFAA radio station. The lady selling soap tells him that WFAA stands for “Working For All Alike”. The Radio Moscow motto was always “Radio Moscow speaks the truth”. They’re not so different, he thinks and mails an ad coupon and a postal money order for twenty-one dollars ninety-five to Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago. The gun is shipped via parcel post the same month.
He turns the page on the free magazine they send with the package and scans an article on The Art of Trigger Control.
Number 7. A firm grip should be maintained at the same pressure while squeezing the trigger to fire one shot or an entire string of shots. To be quick and effective you can’t be too strong or too soft.
He thought of the rats in a tunnel scrabbling into the light to escape the electric shock. He thought of his lathe. He thought of Boris.
He spends the night pleading for her to embrace this new country. This new beginning. He tried to kiss her more than once, but she rejected him. He pleaded for the two of them to get back together, and still, she rejected him.
The next morning, he leaves a wedding ring that has a tiny hammer and sickle engraved on the inside of the band, $187 in cash and a book on top of the TV. It drones away as Marina sleeps.
Later, two women are discussing the merits of hidden zippers in jackets.
What are these for, Betsy? They can’t be for bad money?
Betsy knows that you can zip the hood so that no snow gets in
and that very often you’ll find a zipper hidden in the arm.
Betsy also knows that good design can give you smaller hips.
Pierce Allman, a young news manager at WFAA runs into the studio.
Betsy and her zipper disappear in a hurricane of horizontal lines…
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. You’ll excuse the fact that I’m out of breath… but, about 10 or 15 minutes ago a tragic thing, from all indications, at this point, has happened in the city of Dallas. Let me quote to you this… and, you’ll excuse me if I’m out of breath. This is from the United Press…”
Marina gave the one hundred and eighty-seven dollars to charity, but sold the wedding ring at auction for one hundred and eight thousand dollars on 22nd October 2013.
Bought by an anonymous Texan.
She kept the book.
Lee Harvey Oswald read a lot of Isaac Asimov. He liked his sense of humour and particularly delighted in his Elephant jokes.
Q: Why did the elephant paint its fingernails red?
A: So it could hide in the strawberry patch.
Q: How can you tell that an elephant has been in your
A: Footprints in the butter.
Q: What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?
A: Time for a new fence.
Oswald’s favourite poem of Asimov’s was The Prime of
It was, in truth, an eager youth
Who halted me one day.
He gazed in bliss at me, and this
Is what he had to say:
“Why, mazel tov, it’s Asimov,
A blessing on your head!
For many a year, I’ve lived in fear
That you were long since dead.
Or if alive, one fifty-five
Cold years had passed you by,
And left you weak, with poor physique,
Thin hair and rheumy eye.
For sure enough, I’ve read your stuff
Since I was but a lad
And couldn’t spell or hardly tell
The good yarns from the bad.
My father, too, was reading you
Before he met my Ma.
For you he earned, once he had learned
About you from his Pa.
Since time began, you wondrous man,
My ancestors did love
That s.f. dean and writing machine
The aged Asimov.”
I’d had my fill. I said: “Be still!
I’ve kept my old-time spark.
My step is light, my eye is bright,
My hair is thick and dark.”
His smile, in brief, spelled disbelief,
So this is what I did;
I scowled, you know, and with one blow,
I killed that rotten kid.
Friday 22nd November 1963
1.16pm Oswald flees to Oak Cliff where he shoots Officer J.D. Tippit before being apprehended trying to hide in a theatre. He was three blocks from home.
Sunday 24th November
11.15 A.M. Dallas Municipal Building. Inspector Thomas J Kelly speaks to the suspect prior to his transfer to jail. Oswald has nothing to say.
11:21 A.M. Lee Harvey Oswald is shot by Jack Ruby on the
steps of Police Headquarters.
Isaac Asimov tells the following joke to friends before dinner.
Q: What did the Dallas chief of police say when the
elephant walked into the police station?
A: Nothing! He didn’t even notice.
Marina wakes. The TV is blaring. She barely sees the ring, the book and the wad of cash as she turns it off.
The screen narrows to a small tube of light before clicking to darkness.
“Such was the living light encircling me,
leaving me so enveloped by its veil
of radiance that I could see no thing.
The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes
into Itself with such a salutation,
to make the candle ready for its flame.”
Marina Oswald Porter is 73. She lives in Rockwall, Texas.
First performed at The Cabin, Brighton. March 20th 2015.